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Choreographer’s La Boca Project Has Lots to Say : Stage: Sarah Elgart brings art to the streets from a new performance space adjoining the Sunshine Mission.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

La Boca is about to speak.

The Spanish name Sarah Elgart adopted for her new performance space translates as “the mouth”--a seemingly odd choice for a choreographer. But let Elgart explain the name’s multiple meanings and you find her describing the deeper purpose of her ambitious project.

Mouth not only connotes voice, talking, but more broadly, communication,” Elgart says. “This is absolutely fundamental to what we’re doing here. Since Spanish is my second language, and there’s a large Latino population in the neighborhood, I thought it also made sense as a kind of symbol of outreach and connection.”

Elgart’s aesthetic outreach has been what she terms gestural theater, and it will be the basis of her piece, “Abundance (Wo Man Shall No More Less Endure),” billed with “Call Home,” the latest work of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), for a La Boca benefit premiere Friday and continuing through Sunday.

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But Elgart’s long-term outreach has to do with where La Boca is located and her “Abundance” collaborators. Occupying a 120-year-old former chapel that resonates with an airy Midwestern charm, the space adjoins Sunshine Mission, a large homeless women’s shelter at the corner of Hoover Avenue and Adams Boulevard that combines dorm-style housing and a hotel. While the dorm serves women just off the streets, the hotel houses women--30 currently--re-establishing their lives. All of them work, go to school or both. Five of them, known as MADRES (Mother and Daughters Reaching Empowered States), also make up the heart of “Abundance.”

First developed in a three-month 1989 workshop at Homes For the Homeless on Staten Island prior to its premiere at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, “Abundance” combines gesture, movement and spoken word to suggest the ideal home envisioned by women who find themselves suddenly, sometimes violently, without one. It marks the first step of what Elgart, supported by a California Arts Council artist residency grant, intends to be a journey with women displaced from everything they’ve known.

“For me,” says Elgart, seated in a Sunshine Mission conference room, “the piece is like a folk song passed down through me from the New York women to these L.A. women. And like any good folk song that’s been passed down, it’s also changed.”

Having previously done workshops and performances with battered women, substance abusers and female inmates in maximum security at the California Rehabilitation Institute, Elgart intends for her homeless performers to inform “Abundance” with their own experiences. Inevitably, each version reflects the differences between the two environments.

“In New York, the work was more about life on the street and shelter life, which was pretty chaotic,” she recalls with a slight shudder. “Day-to-day existence was very, very rough, and so our gradual devising of their dream homes became a catharsis for the system they were in.

“The women in MADRES, like most of the women at Sunshine, are much happier and have their lives more on track. So, I think that this version is far more powerful, much more of a piece.”

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With 10 years of experience creating workshops and performances involving people pushed to the margins of American life, Elgart suggests that there are three essential concerns grounding both the initial improvisations and the rehearsals that follow: “First, creating a movement-based gestural theater, in which gestures are universal ways of communicating nonverbally.

“Second, performing as a means of personal empowerment, which is so crucial at this stage in these women’s lives. Finally, expressing aspects of their lives through performance. As an inmate once told me after a performance, ‘I’ve stepped out of myself, and I’ve found myself again.’ ”

L.A. Poverty Department founder John Malpede amusedly relates that several of the company’s 10 performers in “Call Home”--though recently homeless--are such convincing actors that “a few critics insisted that they must be pros.”

In fact, the creative climate surrounding both MADRES and the Poverty Department can be anything but “professional.” The lack of rootedness of most of the people working with Elgart and Malpede sometimes creates situations, in Elgart’s words, “full of accidents.” The number of Sunshine residents in MADRES has slightly fluctuated over the months. The Poverty Department workshops take place in the swirl of homeless traffic at the Inner City Law Center on downtown’s San Pedro Street. It was there that the Poverty Department recently set up a free-of-charge public phone, allowing homeless locals to phone relatives they may not have spoken to in more than a year, according to Malpede.

Where “Abundance” is about home, “Call Home” depicts these ice-breaking contacts--via speaker phone, logistics willing. This double-sided view of challenges facing the homeless, Elgart says, “is a natural progression from the things that matter most to these people. Home and family are hard things for them to think about, but especially during the holidays. So I think it’s very important to be doing this work at this time of year.

“Don’t think that I’m some good Samaritan,” Elgart says of her La Boca plans, which include public classes as well as an ongoing performance schedule. “I need to do this kind of work for my own creative process, and I believe that art has got to come to people, not the other way around. I can only do a small part in this community, but I hope that what is done has resonance.”

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